Mike Marshall’s work is deceptively modest in appearance, seeking through various representations of nature to upset the hierarchy that privileges the Sublime landscape as a subject for art over that of a simple summer day. Much of the work in this show was made during a residency in southern India and is steeped in the rich colours of that tropical environment. His pieces are calm and cool-headed, deriving their poise from their tendency to be shaped by two ideas held expertly in tandem. The video projection A Train Passes Through Trees (2005), filmed on a train crossing through an Indian forest, opens and closes with a static image of an empty carriage, with hard wooden benches. Its middle section consists of an overflow of visual information, which blurs into the long, stripy landscape of the bulk of the video. The snapshot-like photograph White Building (2007) shows a nondescript concrete structure hidden among leafy flowers: the tension of the piece is in the rational lines of culture versus the unruly growth of nature. In the video installation The Thunder and Lightning (2007) thunder rumbles loudly through the work while sudden lightning bursts impart a visual dimension. Tall, dark trees set against a stormy grey, the contours of a beige building and bright magenta flowers are hidden in the darkness.
Each of the works on show took nature as its subject, but each was executed – in a slightly contrived manner – in a different medium: photograph, 16 mm film, video, etching, video installation. The hypnotic 16 mm film Birdcatcher (2006; played on video) was made by laying a long wire, weighing over 40 tonnes, across the jungle floor and moving in one slow, long pan across the forest. The camera travels over moss, rocks, leaves, weeds and tree stumps, ending, with just a hint of closure, on a V-shape formed by the trunks of a young but gnarled tree.
Birdsong, insects chirping: this is the forest without the sound of our feet crunching through it. Birdcatcher, like a landscape painting with sound, allows us both invisibility and silent footfalls, representing what the world looks like when we are not there. The importance of sound to Marshall’s work has been much noted and is here flagged up by the piece's title, which suggests catching birdsong as well as the birds themselves. While the movement of the work mimics flight, the title frames this evocation ambiguously, placing the viewer in the position of flying observer while designating the film as something that entraps a bird of flight. These quandaries of observation – bird and birdcatcher, invisibility and inaudibility – are not so much resolved as allowed to rest as impossibilities rooted in the attempt to represent the world.
Marshall’s choice to include one work from each of a variety of media suggests an interest in investigating how we represent nature, and his work is often torn between a desire to let nature speak for itself – in immediate recapitulations, as though the forest floor of Birdcatcher were a found object – or whether to colour and revamp it as artifice. The thunderclaps in The Thunder and Lightning were not faked but were edited down to shorten the time lapse between them, and Marshall reshot some of the interstitial images the next day. Similarly, the video Days Like These (2003), screened at the Tate Triennial last year (and which gave the Triennial its title), recorded the watering of a luxuriously green garden: what made the subject interesting to Marshall was the artificiality of the environment – a man-made, cultivated garden amid a parched Indian landscape.
In Spoil (2007) Marshall retouched a black and white image of a mountain of debris in a way that both restored original colour to the monochrome image and mimicked, in deliberately debased form, a landscape painting of the Sublime. It’s Caspar David Friedrich crossed with Peter Fischli & David Weiss: by turns meditating on the transcendent qualities of art’s capacity to represent nature, expressing shyness towards art as representation and a love, instead, for the beauties of the commonplace. There are things that are consistently wonderful – flowers, the sun breaking through clouds, the roll of thunder – yet which lose all their power in mediation. Marshall considers how to tackle this problem.
Much work of this sort – and again, Fischli/Weiss would be an example – gains its power with a consistency of pitch and purpose achieved across a range of pieces. Although Marshall’s work is explicitly about the illustration of some sort of banal but true beauty, what comes across most is not the representation but the skill of the artist in communicating this tricky subject.